Tuesday, August 13, 2013

What about the "Good Kids"? Part II

It might concern some of you that in my first installment, I failed to address whether or not the "good kids" are all "saved", (born again, regenerate, redeemed etc). I did not bring that up because I really cannot say with anything approaching certainty. However, I think a safe answer to that question is -- some of them are. What is more, I did not bring up the question of their salvation because I think it is actually part of the problem. Before you begin the modern version of wailing, tearing your clothes and putting ashes on your head -- you know, posting about your disgust on Facebook -- let me explain. I simply mean that part of the reason the "good kids" are often overlooked is because church leaders simply assume that they are all regenerate followers of Christ. In their defense, there are plenty of other problems to deal with without having to go looking for them amongst the "good kids". As long as they show up every week, say the right things, act the part and participate, we assume that all is well (with their souls). All the while, their minds are roiling with doubts and confusion.

So what is the solution? While I cannot offer a comprehensive, sure-fire, step by step guide; I think there are at least three primary categories that any proposed strategy should address. They are: prevention, correction and regular maintenance. Think of it like owning a car or house. Prevention has to do with anticipating doubts and confusion and addressing them before they have a chance to become rooted and mature. Correction means combating full blown doubts and confusion with the truth. Finally, regular maintenance is about keeping the mind sharp so that it can more quickly discern truth from untruth without having to entertain doubts and confusion.

First of all,  let's talk about prevention. For two years, I have taught middle school Christian Studies at Bethlehem Christian Academy (I am doing High School this year). I keep a question box at the front of my room and encourage kids to ask whatever questions they have about God, life, the Bible etc. You might be shocked at some of the questions that I have gotten from kids as young as 11. Mind you, most of these kids have grown up in church and Christian school. Last year, a 6th grade boy asked, "How can we be certain that God exists and that our religion is the right one?" I will not go into the details of my answer. And to be honest, the answer itself is somewhat ancillary to the fact that I was willing to give an answer. He responded by saying, "Wow! No one has ever been willing to answer that for me before." What does that tell you? It tells me that kids start thinking about this stuff when they are in elementary school. It may be hard to answer these type of questions in a way that they can understand when they are only 9 or 10 years old -- but are we even trying? Or are we simply brushing off their questions with "you just have to believe"? That seems to have been the experience of this particular student. By the way, the 6th grade question box was always  full and the 8th grade question box rarely had anything in it. What does that tell you? It tells me that by the time they reach 8th or 9th grade, they would rather eat a light bulb than put off the impression that they do not know everything.

Prevention begins by acknowledging that everyone -- even the "good kids" -- struggles with doubts and confusion. We cannot just ignore that fact. We also cannot wait for them to bring it up. They feel like they already know what the Christian answer will be. As a result, the first time they really seek answers for their doubts it will probably be in an environment that they perceive as sympathetic to their doubts. We need to take the necessary steps to make our homes, classrooms, churches and small groups a place where people feel free to express their darkest doubts and ask their toughest questions. That will probably start with the leaders asking questions like, "How many of you have ever wondered why God allows evil to exist if He is loving?" You know that they have thought about it -- we all have -- but they are not likely to admit it until they know that it is okay. I think the problem is that many leaders are scared to bring these skeletons out of the closet because they have not dealt with it themselves. That is like the husband who thinks that as long as he can avoid confrontation -- even at the expense of communication -- there is not a problem. If you are the one feeling like you wouldn't know how to answer those questions if they were asked, let me encourage you. You may be in an even better position than the most well studied apologist. You have an opportunity to personally walk through the process of seeking answers with the person who is struggling. You might say, "To be honest, I have always struggled with that as well. Why don't we both do some research and get together to work it out." Just be available and transparent. I think you will be amazed by how much of an impact that can have. On the other hand, if you are the seasoned apologist, I would encourage you to make sure that you are serving your local body in some capacity. Very few churches have someone on staff that specializes in apologetics. You could be a huge asset to an entire group of local congregations. Ask the local pastors, (especially student pastors) if you can give a talk on the reliability of the Bible or historical evidence for the resurrection etc. There is a good chance that they could use a break for a service or two.

The second category, correction, is fairly self explanatory and should not require nearly as much explanation as the previous step. Correction is about dispelling doubts and confusion by demonstrating the truth. Understandably, correction is more intimidating to most people than prevention. It is the point at which we  often have to deal with people who have become antagonistic to the Church. As I described in my first installment, this is the place where many of the "good kids" live.  At this point, I will revisit  my original allegory from "Good Kids Part I".

RESUME ALLEGORY: The "good kids" moved all of their Christian furniture to the attic. But why?  Because the patterns and colors were boring and out of style. But there is something about that old furniture that they don't realize. The patterns and colors that turned them off are actually just removable slip covers. They aren't essential to the design or integrity of the furniture. Someone needs to take them up into the attic together and uncover the timelessly engaging and "in style" furniture that lies beneath. They need someone who can say, "I know how it looks to you, but let me show you something". END ALLEGORY.

 It is very tempting to unpack all of the particulars of the allegory above -- but that would totally defeat the purpose. So, I will resist the urge and move on to briefly examine the final category.

The third and final category that must be included in any plan to re-engage the "good kids" is regular maintenance. The reason I have included regular maintenance as a category is that the "good kid" problem can actually happen over and over again regardless of your level of maturity. So please do not think that I am suggesting that the solution is for everyone to run out and enroll in seminary to study apologetics. I would wager to say that some of the brightest apologists in the world are mired in boredom and are living like practical atheists. Regular maintenance may look different for them than others, but it is still necessary. 

I have been going to church for 30 years and have been paying attention for more than half of that time. I have been to dozens of churches spanning several different denominations -- from charismatic to Catholic and everything in between. But in all of that time, I cannot remember hearing much, if anything, about the evidence for the truth of Christianity. As a matter of fact, I was a Christian Studies minor during my undergrad studies and they did not even have a course in apologetics* until my senior year. Sure, I had leafed through "Mere Christianity" like most of the other "good kids". Oh wait! Did I forget to mention that I was one of the "good kids"? Oh yes. I argued with my friends about listening to secular music (sorry Jon), before some of you were even born. I wore the bracelets and t-shirts. Sometimes I still do. Anyway...I eventually got bored. I never stopped going through the motions, but it was not until a few years ago that I began to really examine the evidence for Christianity and uncovered the true nature of the "furniture" -- to re-engage. What changed? Oddly enough, after missing a couple weeks of church services, I had an inclination to listen to a sermon via podcast. I had heard someone say that Timothy Keller** was really smart. You see, the "good kids" are generally not impressed with dramatic displays of emotion in a sermon. Not because there is anything wrong with genuinely heartfelt preaching, but because they feel like they have already "been there" and "done that". But what they aren't used to is a pastor who presents Christ using reason, logic, good presentation skills alongside engaging stories. Anyway, I was interested enough to look Dr. Keller and download a couple of messages. In the particular messages that I downloaded, (Sorry, I can't remember the names) Keller took it upon himself to engage a series of "tough questions" that skeptics and critics raise against Christianity. I think you can still find them on iTunes. At any rate, I could not get enough of it. What was Tim Keller doing that I found so refreshing? He was working within that kind of environment I talked about in the prevention category. The sort of place where it is okay to ask questions and talk about doubts. He was not just presenting evidence for Christianity, he was examining the way we "do church" and approach faith. He was helping his congregation perform regular maintenance -- keeping their minds sharp. He knew that we have have the tendency to put "slip covers" back on the "furniture" over and over again. Why do we do that? Well, as it turns out, the real furniture underneath the "slip covers" is actually a lot bigger than it looks when the slip covers are on. In fact it is infinitely huge. It makes us feel tiny and we do not like that feeling. So we want to cover it back up and make it a size that we can manage. Regular maintenance is necessary because it helps us maintain the proper perspective.

If young people perceive Christian homes, churches, small groups and schools as hostile to doubts and questions, then they will just go where they feel like they welcome. If Christianity seems too frail to handle their toughest objections -- they may not totally abandon belief -- but they will put it in "the attic". As long as these issues are ignored, Christianity will contine to appear to them as something small, flimsy, limited and dismissible. However, by addressing these concerns early and often, we can help them to see that Christianity is huge, solid, limitless and essential to every part of life. To that end, any plan to reach the "good kids" should include, prevention, correction and regular maintenence.

*I am not suggesting that apologetics alone is the solution. However, I believe that the neglect of apologetics is a huge part of the problem. Even if you do not personally struggle with doubts or confusion -- you may say "I am convinced and don't need to know all that stuff" -- there are likely many people in your life that do.

*I am not suggesting that Timothy Keller does everything right or that his sermons will impact everyone the same way that they did me. Obviously, that is not true. My wife actually falls asleep when I listen to him in the car. I am simply sharing my experience.

1 comment:

  1. This has been a very refreshing article. I feel that prevention, correction and maintenance within congregations are often overlooked, because of the assumption that everyone is fine. This is even more true when it comes to church leadership and all who help out (worship team, missionaries, youth leaders etc etc.)

    The steps you mention focus more on maintaining our belief system. But I also feel it necessary to mention that we shouldn't forget about also supporting and maintaining each others' emotional needs. Too often this is overlooked, especially when applied to the "good kids".

    Nevertheless, thank you for the great article